Digging deep: Tips for growing your first garden

By Rebecca Long Pyper

Planting your first garden can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. By planning ahead and following these tips from local gardeners with years of experience, even new growers can have a successful harvest.

1. Watch the weather before getting started. “This year, the way the weather is, is crazy. I’m waiting till the weather settles a little bit and the ground gets a little warmer,” said Tony Mendive, who claims he isn’t an expert gardener but said he’s been growing a vegetable garden “all my life” — and he’s 80 years old. He plans to start tilling his soil soon, and he’ll get his seeds in the ground shortly thereafter.

The weather also dictates watering. When rain is in the forecast or is coming down, there’s no need to water. But when the soil looks dry, give your plants a good drink.

2. Choose varieties intentionally. Evelyn Hitchock, who has completed the University of Idaho Master Gardener course and is already working her garden this spring, recommends focusing on “vegetables that are your favorites, are expensive to buy or are not available in the store with the freshness you want.”

Plant seeds when possible. Seeds are less expensive than starts, and you can grow a lot of vegetables from one little package. Mendive has had repeat success with corn, green beans, peas, carrots, peppers and more. For trickier plants, like tomatoes, he opts for starts.

3. Pick your planting time. Mendive gets his potatoes, carrots and peas in the ground about this time each year. Beans get tucked in a little later because “they come up really fast,” he said. And tomatoes must wait until Memorial Day.

4. Select your site carefully. “Pick a spot that gets at least six hours of full sun. If you don’t have a large area you can plant vegetables in between plants in your flower bed — just be careful about pesticide use” because you don’t want that on your edibles, Hitchcock said.
5. Plant for the space you have. There’s no need for a huge plot to make a garden happen; in his previous home Mendive grew a 10-by-15-foot garden and packed in tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, carrots and a few beans too. Nowadays he’s growing a 30-by-60-foot garden and has been able to add more varieties like onions and garlic.

A small plot might not be such a bad idea anyway. “Don’t make it too big the first year,” Hitchcock said. “You need to be able to keep up with weeding, watering and harvesting.”
6. Treat your plants with fertilizer. Though Mendive said he doesn’t have any gardening secrets, his old standby is Simplot fertilizer granules; he spreads them all over the garden and watches his plants grow robust and healthy.
7. Enjoy the spoils of your labor. One good thing about a vegetable garden is the harvest doesn’t have to wait till fall; you can enjoy produce as it ripens and pick something fresh for dinner throughout the summer. Starting the end of June Mendive said he has veggies ready for picking.
Sidebar: More interested in flowers and landscaping? Hitchcock shares her tips for ornamental gardening:

• Make a plan. Consider the mature size that shrubs and trees will attain. Overplanting is the biggest pitfall — don’t waste your money doing that.
• Be sure to determine the hardiness of a plant — you want Zone 4 or 5 or lower.
• Select plants that tolerate our alkaline soils and dry climate. Ask nursery employees for details.
• If you haven’t seen a plant (like a dogwood or azalea, for instance) growing well around town, there is probably a reason! Steer clear of those that don’t thrive in southeast Idaho.

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